In the ineffable Douglas Adams’ grand adventure, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, he states “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.” And, since superluminal/warp speed/hyperspace spaceships seem to be outside of humanity’s grasp for the near future, we’ll have to rely on moving through the vast void of space at a galactic snail’s pace with generational ships. For the time being anyway.
If we’re going to spend multiple lifetimes aboard some giant tin-can in space, what’s the one thing we need above anything else? Okay, besides air. Okay, besides water. Geeze, fine. What’s the THIRD most important thing humans will need in order to survive a twenty to fifty-year journey? Yes, you guessed it! Food, that ever-present thing that we get just by driving down to the local burger shop or, if you’re really old-school, pulling things out of the ground.
But, according to my sophomore biology teacher, and just about anyone who’s ever eaten literally anything, consuming food creates another problem: Waste. Yep, that just as ever-present thing we don’t like to talk about who’s production most people refer to as Number One or Number Two. Because in space, you can’t just flush a toilet and let it drift off into the deep unknown.
See, here on Earth, we eat food and produce waste. The environment, at some point, transforms that waste into raw materials that plants eat. Animals eat the plants, and we eat the animals and some of the plants too. It’s all part of the Circle of Life… Sorry, had a Lion King moment there.
Since food and waste are essentially recycled here on Earth, we’ll have to do the same thing on a long-term space mission. I mean, come on. I really doubt Uber-Eats will have interplanetary deliveries anytime soon. So what’s the alternative?
It turns out there are quite a few. Just a cursory glance includes cultured/lab-grown meat, fish farms and indoor farming. And if we get really creative, we can even include insect farms and single-cell protein bio-reactors. Yes, these are all real things.
- New York Post: World’s first test-tube hamburger tasted
- Newsweek: Lab-Grown beef will save the planet
- BBC: Lab-grown meat: The future of food?
In reality, growing meat in a lab is a pretty intensive process and we’re still a ways from where we need to be. According to a Fast Company article however, we could be just a couple years away from lab-grown meat being affordable. So far, the cost of a lab-grown burger had dropped to around $12 per pound, but Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies believes they can be under $3 per pound by 2020, putting it in range of most people’s budget, even for a Hamburger Helper.
So, we’re getting there. Already companies have grown beef and chicken without having the whole animal, and pork is supposed to be coming soon too. While they still need the animals as source biological material for now, that won’t always be the case.
There are, of course, alternative forms of protein. People in Western culture may have a bit of an ick-reaction toward it, but significant parts of the world actually get much of their protein from eating insects and bugs. In fact, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization put out a report in 2013 suggesting that insects as a protein source could be the protein source of choice as the world’s population over the next few decades. NBC did a nice piece on how crickets and mealworms are among the current top bugs used for food and can be eaten whole or dried and ground up into a flour.
Now, think about growing insects on a ship. I’m not sure how much crickets would care about low gravity, but they take far less resources to grow. And keeping them in a sterile farm environment keeps them free of other common health issues found in the meat industry, like E.coli, listeria and other pathogens. Not to mention, we could even use the protein powder to make a chocolate-like cake like Kayley did. We can try to get the frosting as chocolatey-tasting as possible…
Don’t like bugs? Fine, how about a powder made by feeding raw materials into an electrical bio-reactor full of single-cell protein? Yep, we’re doing that too. This one is the closest to something like the algea food reactors in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, season 3 episode, “The Passage.” Thankfully, we won’t have to cross a massive hyper-radioactive star cluster to get the starting material.
Meat’s good, of course, but technically speaking man cannot survive on beef alone. (I know, heresy.) That’s where indoor vertical farming comes in. Sometimes referred to as shipping container farming, IVF is where plants are grown in controlled conditions, in a very confined space, usually without soil (also known as hydroponics), and in stacked or vertical beds. Seen as a revolutionary way to grow local food, even Elon Musk’s brother (Kimbal) has created a program to help entrepreneurial farmers learn and develop their own microfarms.
Other groups are creating similar ventures, including Local Roots, GrowUp and CropBox. While vertical farming can be technologically intensive, it offers several benefits over traditional acreage/soil farming. First, it uses considerably less water. Musk’s Square Roots containers can use as little as 10 gallons of recycling water each day. Vertical farms are also completely pesticide free. Because they’re indoors, they are isolated from any pests. Thirdly, and maybe one of the most important, they can continually produce food faster and without regard for the weather. AeroFarms facilities can get a total of up to thirty lettuce harvests per year, compared to traditional farming’s three.
Of course, on a ship, farming with aquaponics will require some kind of gravity. Maybe. If the water can be in a form of a biogel that is easily created with nutrients and reproducible materials, then the lack of a gravity well (or thrust-gravity) might not be an issue. And, for the size of a couple shipping containers on a massive ship, the crew could have fresh veggies in a virtually unlimited supply. All they need is recyclable materials and electricity.
Once all the food is consumed, though, we’re brought to the inevitable conclusion. The waste. Unpleasant, stinky, icky, grody human waste. Despite our modern aversion to good ‘ol stool, human waste and farming used to be pretty well connected (besides the in one end out the other thing). In fact, in a closed environment and with proper compositing, human feces can be turned into an effective fertilizer. A system using waste heat from engines or other ship’s systems could provide an excellent catalyst for a composting reactor. Especially when combined with just the right mix of enzymes to help break things down.
In the end (pun intended), any kind of a generational ship will need to create its own closed-loop food-waste ecosystem. With enough plants, this may even help with producing oxygen, too. Because seriously, I doubt there are any drive-thrus along the way. This is all just hypothetical, though, since having a ship cast off for Proxima Centauri is probably several decades away, at least. Until then, though, the idea of shipping off for the stars will just have to stay in the realm of science fiction.